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Second-best defence or best goalkeeper in the league?

Sir Alex Ferguson once said; “attack wins you games, but defence wins you titles”. His teams had a slight inclination towards the former, but over the years, great defensive partnerships and great goalkeepers have made sure that this mantra holds true.

In 2017-18, Manchester United had a pretty good season at the back, as they conceded only 28 goals while keeping 19 clean sheets in the league. The only team with a tighter defence were Champions Manchester City. With these numbers, one could be mistaken to believe that United’s defence is ready for another good disciplined season. However, a closer look at last season show that United have been more reliant on their goalkeepers than their defenders.

In the Premier League, David De Gea has been the go-to person for United to keep a clean-sheet against even the easiest of oppositions. With 18 clean-sheets, he won the Premier League Golden Glove for 2017-18. During the season, he had a massive tally of 115 saves, only behind Jack Butland (Stoke City), Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea City), Mat Ryan (Brighton and Hove Albion) and Jordan Pickford (Everton), of which, Stoke and Swansea were relegated and Brighton finished 15th.

De Gea’s efficiency at blocking/saving shots has been an impressive 80.28%. Some of his saves were simply outstanding, leaving fans, pundits, and players alike in disbelief. He was rightly awarded the ‘Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year’ for 2017-18, his fourth time in five years. Although, it is quite remarkable for De Gea to be the best player, four times in past five seasons, it also spells disaster for a club like Manchester United, that their goalkeeper has been their best player for the better part of the last half-decade.

To give credit where it’s due, United’s backline has been really good at intercepting plays, blocking shots and crosses to prevent goal-scoring opportunities for their opponents. United’s defence have blocked more shots and intercepted more plays when compared with the ‘Big Six’ teams.

However, the biggest problem for Manchester United at the back, has been the defenders themselves. They have been guilty of giving away possession quite cheaply or making silly errors in their own half. There have been quite a few occasions where opposition players have been left unmarked or there have been gaping holes, due to players straying off their positions. This lack of discipline also shows in the number of successful tackles and the efficiency. United have the fourth least number of successful tackles (564)at a success rate of just 65%. Just for comparison, in the 2006-07 season, United gave away 27 goalsin the league, one less than the 2017-18 season. However, in the 2006-07 season, United’s defence made 890 successful tackles at 76% success rate, requiring Edwin van der Sar to make a meagre 77 saves.

One of the main reasons for this sub par performance has been a lack of a consistent back line. Injuries have hampered development of any solid centre-back pairing. Eric Bailly and Phil Jones started the season very well with United racking up clean-sheets early on. However, that stopped as Bailly, who looked like a real leader in defence, was injured for three weeks in October and then another three months in November, due to an ankle surgery.

Chris Smalling stepped in to partner with Phil Jones, until Jones had to be out, owing to a hamstring injury. Victor Lindelof had to step in, in his first season in the Premier League, having transferred from Benfica at the start of the season. The young defender took some time, to step up his game to the high standards of the English game. But by the time he had settled in, enough damage had been made, as United had dropped points in games they were expected to win.

On either side of the centre-backs, United had Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, for the most part of the season, with Luke Shaw, Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind making cameos. However, Mourinho’s preferred left-back and right-back choices, Young and Valencia respectively, both now 33 years old, couldn’t match the fast pace of the Premier League at times. Wing players originally, both had the added responsibility to help the attack and provide good crosses in the box.

Their attacking instincts, at times, caused them to be out of position and leaving an entire flank open. However, when Mourinho shuffled the pack to a back three, they excelled owing to the extra cover. That may be an option for the next season as Mourinho would want a more stable defensive setup.

United have not added considerably to their defence in the transfer window so far. Diogo Dalot, a 19-year old right-back was signed from Porto and Lee Grant was signed from Stoke City as a third goalkeeper. But the bulk of the defence still remains the same, indicating Jose Mourinho trusts his current crop of players.

United do have good leaders in both Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. Bailly has shown his ability to command the defence last season, for the games he was fit. Smalling has been at Manchester United for over eight years now, learning his trade from one of the best United centre-back pairings – Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof and Marcos Rojo have shown that they can come in, if needed, and provide solid performances even against a tough opposition.

Timothy Fosu-Mensah is back from his loan spell at Crystal Palace and he provides an additional option, as does Axel Tuanzebe. These youngsters have also impressed during the pre-season tour. Daley Blind has left the club to rejoin Ajax, but with Luke Shaw having a good run in the pre-season, Mourinho has multiple choices to select from next season.

With so many options, United do have a formidable defence and it is Mourinho’s responsibility now, to use the right tactics, select the right players and have a consistent back line. When fit, United’s defenders have given everything for the team, and Mourinho would hope to have an injury-free season. United fans certainly love the fact that United have De Gea, one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Their only hope might be that he doesn’t have to prove why he is so, every week.

Written by Chinmay Tembe

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